It takes advance planning and creativity to design exciting and effective learning centers. But the payoff comes as soon as you see students' faces light up when you announce, "Center Time."

These teacher-tested tips will help you set up dynamic areas for independent learning.

  • Begin with one learning center in an area of personal strength or in an area especially interesting to you and your students.
  • Tie centers into your curriculum: the content or skills can change to match what you are studying in a particular subject area.
  • Make sure your learning centers have clear objectives, simple directions, and, if appropriate, samples of the type of work or activity students will be creating there.
  • Create a storage system of boxes, file folders, or large envelopes. Label all of the materials in each storage container.
  • Include a variety of activities to engage different types of learners — avoid providing only paper-and-pencil tasks. Students should also have opportunities to draw, color, cut, glue, match, listen, fasten, tie, select, compare, classify, outline, assemble, rearrange, etc.
  • Remember that many students respond to inviting environments such as cozy corners, attractive decorations, and special touches from students (a mural painted on a cardboard room divider, for example). Area rugs and netting or sheer fabric also help set off an area and  make it appealing.
  • Remember the needs of your second-language learners.
  • Model expected behaviors and introduce learning objectives when you open the center and as needed throughout the year.
  • Invite students to contribute to your centers with personal collections or related artifacts and items.
  • Allow for some student choice. Simply rotating students doesn't allow them to practice self-direction and responsibility.
  • Set a time schedule for using the centers.
  • Designate a special place to display student work.
  • Invite donations and ideas from parents.
  • Watch the centers in action to determine which seem most engaging and successful and which need fine-tuning.
  • Periodically add new activities/centers to maintain student interest, but be realistic about how often to do so. Weekly is too often.
  • Take photos of the center to help you set them up the next time around.


Need Some Ideas?

No matter what content area you're teaching, there's usually a way to design a center around it. Here are a few possibilities:

  • A writing center, stocked with different types of paper, model fiction or nonfiction pieces, story starters, grammar tip sheets, word lists, and editing pencils
  • A book box on a table filled with reading materials about a particular subject or theme, or organized by author or genre
  • An art cart with materials and instruction for making mobiles, dioramas, cartoon strips, crayon rubbings, and friendship cards — all tied to the curriculum
  • A math path, where students find math games, activities, and manipulatives stored in a large box
  • A full-length mirror where kindergarteners try on costumes, masks, hats, or silly glasses and role-play
  • A comfy seat in a quiet corner designated for independent reading


This article was adapted from Learning to Teach...Not Just for Beginners: The Essential Guide for All Teachers by Linda Shalaway (© 2005, Scholastic).